Thursday, May 31, 2012

Liking and "Unliking" in Facebook Navigational Language


Obododimma Oha

Facebook, as a recent form of social media, comes with its own language, its own sub-register, which particularly manifests in unique lexical forms. Every technology, as an experience in and of culture, occasions the emergence of a jargon through which it creates and consolidates the subjectivity of its users. To be fully part of that technoculture requires a proper understanding of the underlying meanings and discourses its communicative forms imply. What one could call a thriving Facebook navigational language, or the technical expression typical of Facebook regulation of behavior and interaction in its environment, is indeed very exciting but also does signify some important discourses that Facebook users ought to be mindful of. Ignoring the implications in the use of the language and other communicative media suggested by Facebook as options in interactions could have serious implications for personal image, security, and relationships. Those who interact in an online environment like Facebook without considering how their verbal and non-verbal expressions could affect them indeed show that they are still deficient in the type of communication skills that go along with cyber interactions or "cyberacy," as Web literacy is sometimes identified. 

Facebook navigational language does not just assist the user in selecting preferred behavioural postures, but also sorts and locates users in certain underlying discourses. Thus, as one navigates one's way on Facebook, one necessarily identifies oneself with the worlds of these discourses, even inadvertently. Indeed, this makes the Facebook environment a useful setting for research, for the investigation of groups and individuals. In this regard, Facebook ought to be taken seriously as both a context and tool for security monitoring. It is not necessarily a "free" playground where one could just do as one likes. But even the playground could be a place where one could watch the other very closely and learn something about the inclinations of the other, to learn how to live in the presence of the other.

For some casual observers of Facebook life, the navigational language is just funny. One is invited by this language to "like" and then "unlike." One can also "add as friend" (or just "friend," as a verb) and sometimes "unfriend' (some would even say "de-friend.") One's personal computer, as one's immediate language teacher, obviously does not understand these lexical items and queries them now and then. No dictionary also authorizes one to use them as correct forms. In spite of these, some people who have Facebook presence do not hesitate to use these words, or rather their "facebookese," outside the Facebook environment. You could encounter in a listserv post an expression like: "Someone unfriended me recently for arguing in support of the anti-gay legislation," or "If you don't like my like of argument, you can unfriend me." Surely, these usages are funny and do give a playful picture to Facebook interaction. Many people are looking for such fun,though, at least as a temporary escape from the very serious universe of discourse they have been subjected to in professional and public circles. This fun experienced in Facebook navigational language is further complemented by the friendly exchanges (the thanking, the messaging of goodwill (and the massaging of the ego!) and sharing of stories in various forms of media), all which give one an illusion or rather hallucination of belonging where discourse liberates.

Now let us examine our liking and "unliking" in our Facebook navigational language, to see where they take us as we take them as options that indicate our preferences in the reading of Facebook posts. The field of "Like" on Facebook is provided as a revelation of self, or of personal preferences. One reveals oneself or one's disposition to others to which one is connected when one chooses to "like" a post. By implication, a Facebook friend that has failed to "like" a post made by another indirectly reveals self to the other. But I suspect that not many would take notice of who has not indicated liking a post, given that many persons on Facebook have many Facebook friends. In this case, it is the indication of liking that is foregrounded, i.e. made prominent in the context of the Facebook discourse. Moreover, one who, after liking a post, "unlikes" it, obviously calls attention to self and to the act. Such an "unliking" is likely going to cause the person who made the status post reflect deeply on the act and on the relationship with the "unliker." It may harm the relationship in some ways and it is perhaps for this reason that the act of liking on Facebook occurs more frequently than that of "unliking." 

But what could make one "unlike" a post on Facebook? One could "unlike" a post if (1) the initial act of liking was an error, in which case one clicked on the "Like" button without meaning to do so; (2) the initial act of "liking" was done without a deep reflection on why one should make the choice; in other words, as a hasty decision; (3) one no longer wishes to associate with the post or its assumptions, given the kind of reactions it is receiving from other Facebook commentators; and (4) one wants to play a game with the idea of liking and "unliking" as acts on Facebook.

A liker is normally liked; an "unliker" is not, except maybe by another "unliker." A liker by liking indirectly performs an illocutionary act of praising the person who posts, and sometimes backs this up with a verbal praising and thanking. By liking, one presents a desirable image of self; in other words, one identifies and solidarizes with the other, which is why it is risky to go about liking just any Facebook status update or item shared! What one likes testifies for and against one! Same for what one "unlikes." 

While brainstorming on this topic this evening, I made the following status update (indeed, the second for today), as a way of testing the waters:

'Facebook should provide "Dislike" as an option to "Like" for readers of status updates. The field, "Unlike," which appears after someone has indicated liking a post, is not an alternative. It is merely a withdrawal from liking, I believe. One cannot even indicate this "unlike" from the beginning unless one first commits oneself to "Like." "Unliking" is not disliking; the former is a different discourse entirely.'

I was lucky to receive a favorable comment and support few minutes later from Ursula Ifeoma Akwara, a Facebook friend, which read: 'and what amazes me is that some people put a "like" to a very horrible story." She just hit the bull! Some people on Facebook appear to have become that careless as "likers" to the extent of not thinking before liking, or not keeping to mind what "like" involves.They just like everything on Facebook! Some kind of Facebook illiteracy? Is it out of the excitement of being on Facebook? 

The liking of some categories of status updates on Facebook could be very problematic. As Akwara suggests in her intervention cited above, the liking of a report of a tragic incident is disturbing. One wonders whether it is the incident that is being liked or its reporting, or both. The liking of the tragic incident, say a terrorist bombing, shocks us. How could anyone like such an experience unless the liker is either a collaborator in the bombing or one of the supporters of the terrorist organization? Or perhaps the liker of the incident is particularly diabolical and enjoys seeing destruction enacted. In this respect, the liking of the report of the tragic incident creates ethical problems for the liker: it does some damage to the image of the liker, for Facebook readers that process the liking from this angle would not come back later to find out if the liker has other acceptable reasons for the liking of the story.

It is also difficult to discern whether it is the reporting of the incident, i.e. the art of storytelling or presentation itself, that is being liked specifically. In that case, the act of liking is a way of thanking the person that tells (or that has brought) the story for doing so. But, again, not many people like being told shocking stories. So, such individuals would not like someone's liking of what they do not like. In Pragmatics, the orientation for human beings to prefer the presentation of the bright side of life to the ugly is referred to as "Pollyanna Principle" (Leech, 1983). It is also referred to as "Positive bias". Telling or presenting shocking stories to such individuals is a violation of this principle, and, by extension, a threat to what Tae-Seop Lim and John Waite Bowers (1991) have identified as "autonomy face want" -- the desire to be left undisturbed, in this regard, not to be bothered psychologically. When we are shown the dark side of life, worry and sadness are introduced in our mental lives. Indeed, one cannot escape the experience of this dark side of life entirely, given the complex nature of intersubjectivity in the world. The doctrine of "see-no-evil" is not entirely practicable, for one does not always go out to search for evil to see. Rather, evil comes looking for one to see, and environments like Facebook provide no guarantee that that one would not see "evil" in the sharing of "stories". 

Who are the persons expected to be "likers" on Facebook? The following, most likely: (1) those wishing to be liked by those whose posts they like; (2) those wishing to consolidate their relationship on Facebook (I realize relationships could move from the hyperreality of Facebook to the real world, if they get stronger, or an enmity could enter the real world if the hyperreal friendship collapses and gets bitter); (3) those wishing to identifying with the groups or entities with which the person who makes status post identifies ("your friends are also my friends!"); (4) those who have made it a lousy habit to keep liking things on Facebook, to be noticed on Facebook, or because they think they have becomes Facebook "people;" and, of course, (5) those who genuinely like the post, not because they wish that others like them. 

Status updates probe what is on our minds, and Facebook usually prompts us by asking the question, "What's on your mind?" Is anyone in doubt that this system-generated question is an indication of curiosity? It would be damn stupid for the addressee to feel that underlying this question is the assumption about the addressee's freedom to say whatever is one the mind, whatever one likes, and that Facebook, as one the social  media, is where freedom is boundlessly celebrated. Indeed, many Facebook subscribers ignorantly adopt this posture and go ahead to write or upload just anything they have in their closets! And, of course, some other wise users do not fail to raise objections or caution them about their recklessness (which is a reflection of NOT liking). It is helpful to others as readers to have an idea, indeed database, on what is on someone's mind and what someone likes or does not like. Facebook and its readers can, with time, build a reliable profile on users based on what they like, as well as those whose "likes" they like. Those whose "likes" or "unlikes"converge form a sub-Facebook behavioural community. They could be linked to particular types of related behaviours.

A "like" assigned to a Facebook implies a discourse on association, where "unlike" suggests a withdrawal from association. The withdrawal from association does not erase the initial association; it rather continues the "story" of liking in other ways, raising further curiosity as to why this withdrawal (and when this withdrawal). Similarly, it implicitly raises a question about associating with what had been posted and the person that posted it. Indeed, "dislike" is connected to Facebook's notion of "Unlike," but it presents a different kind of discourse about association. If Facebook had provided "Dislike" as a field alongside "Like" from the beginning when a user encounters a post, it would have been possible for the user to start by dissociating with a post right from the outset. An "unlike" is already committal, which makes one afraid that Facebook might be particularly interested in knowing involvement more than an interest in non-involvement. A discourse of involvement appears more interesting than that of non-involvement. A "dislike" is more exonerating, more protective for the Facebook reader than an "unlike" that stages a withdrawal from previous action.

I like what I like. Yes. I also like what I dislike, otherwise I do not know what I like and would not have chosen to like it. Know what you like and like that you like it. Do not "unlike" what you like, unless you are inclined to practising the art of deception. Do not choose to like and then "unlike," if you really "dislike." Remember this: your like is where you are, where you have been, where we can find you, where we can bury you on Facebook. 


Leech, G.N. 1983. Principles of Pragmatics. London & New York: Longman.

Lim, T.S., & Bowers, J.W. 1991. "Facework: Solidarity, Approbation, and Tact," Human Communication Research 17, 415-450.

Oha, O. 2012. Facebook Status Update, 31 May 2012,5.06 PM.